Just Where Was The Chisholm Trail? | Past & Present

May 16, 2017

During the 150th celebration of the Chisholm Trail, knowing the exact route of the trail is a lesson in history. The CT150 committee has created a map that outlines the route in Kansas...or at least one version of the route. This map uses the markers of Tom Frazee and the Kansas Cattletown Coalition that followed the trail from Caldwell up to Abilene. It works well for the purposes of commemorating the route.

That said, the actual trail was not a single path as much as a set of paths that changed depending on time and circumstance. The route that went to Abilene lasted only until other places emerged as new railheads. By 1871, one branch of the trail veered to the west via Park City en route to Ellsworth, while another crossed the Arkansas, passed by the newly-created city of Wichita, and continued on up to Newton.  Between 1867 and 1876, cattle drives would have taken slightly different courses depending on how flooded or dry rivers had become, where the best grass grew, and where the easiest river fords were.  Situations caused by weather or prairie fire or the progress of the railroad could shift portions of the trail quite significantly.

The Chisholm Trail was not one well marked route, like the Santa Fe Trail with its deep ruts or the asphalt ribbon of Route 66. Instead, it was more of a corridor.  A place might well have seen cattle drives even if it never appeared on a specific map.  In many cases, “where” the trail went was really a function of “when” a particular drive came through.

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